Online vets


online vetsThe internet has changed the way we access a whole range of services. Now it’s even possible for pet owners to talk to online vets—a boon for customers and most likely a game changer in animal care. By Andy Kollmorgen

Nothing personal, but pet owners are generally not keen to rush their pets over to the vet unless it’s an emergency. In fact, nine out of 10 put off making the trip because they’re worried about cost or it’s too much of a hassle.

That’s what a recent survey organised by vet of 12 years, Dr Claire Jenkins, suggests, and the findings are well in line with her clinical experience both here and in the UK.

Dr Jenkins has seen what can go wrong when pet owners procrastinate.

“Whatever clinic I was in, the problem was always the same. Many pet owners were coming in later than they should have, and their pets were suffering the consequences. The pets ended up sicker than they otherwise would have been, and even terminally ill in some cases. And the costs of treatment almost always ended up increasing.”

The survey was part of Dr Jenkin’s research for an entrepreneurial project aimed at arresting this unhealthy trend. It’s a start-up online service called Vetchat, and it allows pet owners to access expert advice from qualified vets about potential pet health issues without having to get themselves to the clinic every time.

In Dr Jenkin’s view, a way for pet owners and vets to make informed decisions about whether the animal needs to come in right away, or at all, is a breakthrough. And it’s been a long time coming.

“Pet owners’ needs are not being fully met by bricks-and-mortar vets, and the experience of pet owners bears this out,” Dr Jenkins says. “I’ve been nurturing this idea for a long time and trying to think of a way to address the problem.”

Of course, an online vet service backed by bona fide expertise does not spring out of thin air. Along with the gumption to make it happen, these sorts of projects take money, which is where an organisation called SheStarts came in.

The program matches entrepreneurial ideas from women with the wherewithal to get them off the ground, and Dr Jenkins was one of about 800 applicants vying for up to $100,000 in pre-seed funding.

“We had to go through a kind of boot camp and pitch our idea,” she says. “Winning the funding was further validation that the idea had merit, and it was really the catalyst that made Vetchat a reality.”

Other SheStarts funding winners who went through the program with Dr Jenkins include women who have created a digital approach to getting one’s affairs in order when life’s end is near and a website that lets you gain control of the data that businesses collect and keep about you.

But is veterinary medicine ready for an e-platform approach with no vet actually present in the room? Only if you understand its limits, Dr Jenkins says.

“We certainly don’t see it as a diagnostic service, and we’re not out to cannibalise the vet market,” says Dr Jenkins. “It’s really just an advisory service.”

“We certainly don’t see it as a diagnostic service, and we’re not out to cannibalise the vet market. It’s really just an advisory service aimed at improving the way we deliver pet care. About one in two pet owners already go to the internet for advice before seeing a vet as it is, and what they find there is not always trustworthy. This initiative is about providing instant access to professional vet advice. It’s also an opportunity for vets to expand their customer base, improve efficiencies, and concentrate more on the cases that require the most attention.”

Still, there has been some grumbling from the established order. “It’s quite daunting when you’re trying to change the status quo,” Dr Jenkins says. “There is always going to be concern about a change in service.”

When it comes to human health, so-called telemedicine has also attracted its share of critics in recent years. Naysayers charge that the lack of a physical examination could mean some symptoms go unnoticed and that the physical distance undermines the doctor-patient relationship, which often goes beyond matters of immediate concern and opens the door to preventative health.

Then there’s the fickle nature of modern technology: if your internet connection goes away, so does the consultation.

Dr Jenkins acknowledges that Vetchat can’t do everything, but she thinks it can go a long way toward delivering better overall service, either before or after an actual trip to the clinic. It also benefits the many pet owners who would rather wait and see what happens before coming in to the clinic, especially people in remote areas.

And she’s quick to point out that good technology is central to the project. Vetchat co-founder Matt Hall is the digital brains behind the operation, and he brings experience in ecommerce and digital product development to the table.

Without the digital know-how, Vetchat wouldn’t work, Dr Jenkins admits. The interactive functions of the site involve video tools, photos, and live text chat.

“We are using what has been proven to work well and work well in remote areas,” she says of the technology.

Vetchat is not the only such service in Australia, and not the only one set up to serve remote areas. Another, i-Vet, serves pet owners in the Northern Territory and was founded by NT vet Susan Samuelsson.

Then there’s the online-only (and apparently US-based) PetCoach, which takes a borderless approach, inviting pet owners wherever they live to post questions on a forum and receive answers from a range of “pet experts”. The pet owner then picks an expert to continue the
online consultation.

Dr Jenkins’ service seems a bit more grounded than that. She’s a member of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists, and the advice on Vetchat will invariably be from licensed vets—whom she invites to get in touch if they’re interested in taking part.

The degree to which Vetchat will become a game changer will likely depend on the degree to which pet owners are willing to put their trust in advice served over the internet—and how well they’re able to follow it. With all kinds of vital medical services delivered online these days, perhaps it’s not that much of a stretch.


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